Gaza War: Day 94

Wind-down of northern Gaza fighting shows what Israeli victory may mean 

IDF announces that Israel dismantled Hamas’ military capabilities in the northern strip, partially achieving one of its war aims, but fighting continues and hostages remain in Gaza

Noam Galai/Getty Images

An entrance shaft to a tunnel that Hamas reportedly used on October 7th to attack Israel through the Erez border crossing on January 07, 2024, in Northern Gaza.

Israel’s war aims, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in Sunday’s cabinet meeting, are “eliminating Hamas, returning all of our hostages and ensuring that Gaza will never again constitute a threat to Israel.” 

But the military developments of the past few days have given a better glimpse at what winning the war looks like for Israel than the often-repeated slogans.

The IDF announced on Saturday that Israel had successfully dismantled Hamas’ military capabilities in northern Gaza. Spokesman Rear-Adm. Daniel Hagari listed five elements to the dismantling: killing any Hamas commanders, thus limiting the group’s ability to control and command its regiments of terrorists; fighting terrorists in the field; collecting intelligence, such as a newly released photo of Hamas military leader Muhammad Deif that is much more recent than the one previously known to the public; locating and destroying rockets, weapons and the locations in which they’re stored; and destroying Hamas’ underground infrastructure.

The IDF’s wind-down in northern Gaza comes weeks after the U.S. began calling for the war to enter a “less intense” phase. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Thursday that “the war will continue until its goals are reached,” but that in northern Gaza, the fighting is entering a different phase that is focused more on raids, airstrikes and special operations to take out “pockets of resistance” along with destroying tunnels, while in the south, the IDF will concentrate on eliminating Hamas’ leadership and freeing the hostages.

Last week’s killing of Saleh Al-Arouri — for which Israel is widely believed to be responsible — appears to be part of a wider plan to disable Hamas’ leadership, which would achieve one of Israel’s war aims. Deif and Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza who masterminded the Oct. 7 terror attacks, are the two best-known Hamas leaders now in Israel’s crosshairs. There has also been consistent talk about the possibility of exiling the two to another country as part of a hostage exchange.

The IDF still hopes that it can rescue some of the hostages and not just their remains or belongings. Hagari said on Saturday that the IDF “learned many lessons from the incident in which three hostages were killed in a friendly fire incident, and we have been briefing the forces for this kind of encounter. Bringing back the hostages is a central goal of the war and a supreme national goal.” 

The IDF is trying to learn from other mistakes made on Oct. 7 and during the war, with Chief of Staff Herzi Halevy appointing retired generals to head a probe. Halevi’s choice of figures who oversaw the 2005 Gaza disengagement sparked outrage from ministers who opposed Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza — though one of them played an important role in it herself. 

All of this does not mean the war, now in its fourth month, is about to end. Hagari said that “the war will continue throughout 2024” as there is still much work to be done to dismantle Hamas’ military capabilities in central and southern Gaza, including in Khan Younis, Hamas’ stronghold in the south. The IDF is “continuing to develop creative and tricky ways to fight in this space,” which is “crowded and saturated with terrorists,” he said. 

In addition, Hezbollah’s shelling of northern Israel continues, with the Biden administration reportedly alarmed at the prospect of an escalation between Israel and Hezbollah, as tens of thousands of internally displaced Israelis are unable to return to their homes. 

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